Edinburgh scientists to zero in on important cause of dementia

Posted on 14th March 2016

University of Edinburgh researchers have started work on a pioneering project to unravel the biological causes of dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) – a disease affecting over 100,000 people in the UK.

The three-year PhD project has been made possible thanks to nearly £90,000 of funding from Alzheimer’s Research UK, the country’s leading dementia research charity.

The Lewy bodies that give the disease its name are round clumps of protein that build up within nerve cells in the brain, interfering with the way they communicate with one another. This interference is what causes the symptoms of the disease which can include memory problems, hallucinations, changes in attention, and Parkinson’s disease-type movement problems. As with all forms of dementia, these symptoms take a huge toll on people’s lives, becoming progressively worse until the person affected struggles with all aspects of day-to-day life and needs round-the-clock support.

Prof Kathryn Ball and her student, Catrina Dias, together with their colleague Dr Tilo Kunath, will use cutting-edge stem cell techniques to grow human nerve cells in a dish and recreate key processes happening inside the brains of people with DLB. They aim to find out how a protein called CHIP could be influencing formation of the harmful Lewy bodies and how this could point researchers in the direction of potential new treatments for the disease.

Prof Ball said:

“We still don’t know why some people develop the protein clumps that cause DLB while others don’t. Research in mice has shown that the CHIP protein might normally tag the harmful protein that forms Lewy bodies, triggering the body to dispose of it. It may be that if CHIP isn’t working as it should, the harmful protein doesn’t get tagged and Lewy body proteins start to build up. We plan to investigate this by studying human nerve cells that we will grow from skin cells donated by people living with dementia.

“Understanding the biological processes underlying DLB is crucial for finding new ways of helping people living with the disease. Current treatments for DLB are very limited and there are no treatments that can stop or slow the spread of the disease through the brain. We urgently need a treatment like this to offer hope to thousands of people with DLB as well as their friends and loved ones whose lives can also be turned upside-down by the condition.”

Dr Rosa Sancho of Alzheimer’s Research UK said:

“Not only will this project zero in on a key process involved in DLB, it is also pioneering powerful experimental techniques and, by supporting a PhD studentship, starting another scientist on a career path in dementia research. There are six times as many scientists working on cancer as dementia and with dementia affecting 850,000 people in the UK – 6000 of whom are living in Edinburgh – It is vital we build research capacity to tackle this problem head on.

“Alzheimer’s Research UK is only able to fund cutting edge projects like this one thanks to the generosity and hard work of our supporters. It is thanks to them that researchers in Edinburgh and across the country are driving progress towards a better understanding of diseases like DLB and how to tackle them effectively.”

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